World War II Army veterans and Bartlett residents Wanda Cukla, 91, and Ernie Reynolds, 87, are preparing for an all-expense-paid trip of a lifetime. On Wednesday, April 25, the two will fly to Washington, D.C., where they will visit the National World War II Memorial and tour the country's capital.
The trip is hosted by Honor Flight Chicago, part of a national network of nonprofit organizations that have flown more than 80,000 veterans to the memorial for free since 2005.
"The American veteran is one of our greatest treasures, those men and women who answered our nation's call, especially at times of our greatest need," said Honor Flight Chicago President Mary Pettinato.
Cukla and Reynolds are part of an ever-shrinking group of surviving World War II veterans. In fact, in about three to five years, most World War II veterans will no longer be with us. The Honor Flight is a way to honor and thank Cukla, Reynolds and other World War II veterans for their sacrifice and service in the U.S. military.
From dairy to Army
When she was 16, Wanda Cukla moved from a small dairy farm in Wisconsin to Chicago and worked as a child caretaker while attending school. After graduating, she joined the Army. Armed with mixing bowls and an apron, she trained to be an Army baker and learned how to cook for the troops. Everyone wanted to be her friend, she recalls, so they could get some sweet treats. She says her 2½ years in the Army were among the best years of her life.
Wanda married her husband, John, who also served in the Army, and together they traveled to every state. This trip to Washington, D.C., is especially important to Cukla because through a lifetime of sightseeing, she has yet to see the World War II Memorial.
Ernie Reynolds registered for the draft days after his 18th birthday in April 1943. Within two months, he began basic training. When the European invasion began, Reynolds was sent to England, where he was assigned to the 249th Combat Engineers Battalion, which later became part of General Patton's Third Army.
As an Army truck driver, Reynolds made daily runs to pick up groceries at the train or truck depot, maneuvering around bombs dropped by German dive bombers. While trudging across Europe, Reynolds' unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest and bloodiest battle American soldiers ever fought.
After one year overseas, Reynolds returned home on sick leave. He finished his service at a POW camp in Scotts Bluff, Neb., where German prisoners were detained.
While on a 30-day leave, Reynolds married his wife Gertrude "Trudy" on Aug. 5, 1945, the day before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Trudy packed Ernie's uniform away, and they started a family. Recently, Ernie donated his preserved Army uniform to the Bartlett Depot Museum, where it is on display.
Ernie says this trip is the perfect birthday present, coming just two days after he turns 88.
Cukla and Reynolds both reside at Victory Centre of Bartlett supportive living community, where they continue to live meaningful and fulfilled lives with family and friends. They both look forward to the Honor Flight experience in Washington D.C., on April 25.